Some skepticism on mining asteroids

Count The Economist as skeptical on the plans Planetary Resources has to mine asteroids as one step in their privately funded space exploration efforts.

In their article, Going platinum, they survey some of the hurdles.

Finding a few good asteroids to work on is an easy step with a few small telescopes at cost of a few millions.

Taking a closer look at the targets will require getting explorer spacecraft next to the asteroids.

Much tougher step is the mining. That could be done either as the asteroid is in its orbit or pulling the asteroid into earth or moon orbit. Here’s the two approaches:

The first is to attempt to mine a large NEA {near earth asteroid, that is, one with an orbit close enough to the earth to be reachable} in its existing orbit, dropping off a payload every time it passes by. That is the reason for the search for asteroids with appropriate orbits. This approach will, however, require intelligent robots which can work by themselves for years, digging and processing the desirable material. The other way of doing things is for the company to retrieve smaller asteroids, put them into orbit around Earth or the moon, and then dissect them at its leisure.

The biggest problem on the horizon, according to the article, is what happens to the price of precious metals when the amount available on the market expands drastically. Here is the issue:

But the real doubt over this sort of enterprise is not the supply, but the demand. Platinum, iridium and the rest are expensive precisely because they are rare. Make them common, by digging them out of the heart of a shattered planet, and they will become cheap.

On the other hand, the demand curve isn’t vertical for metals that are really useful in high-tech tools. Who knows what would happen to demand if prices dropped 20% or 60%.

My brain isn’t big enough to sort though the opportunities and challenges.  I’m reasonably comfortable this cast of characters has applied some serious thought:

The company’s founders are Peter Diamandis, instigator of the X Prize, awarded in 2004 to Paul Allen and Burt Rutan for the first private space flight, and Eric Anderson, another of whose companies, Space Adventures, has already shot seven tourists into orbit. Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, respectively the chief executive and the chairman of Google, are also involved. So, too, is Charles Symonyi, the engineer who oversaw the creation of Microsoft’s Office software (and who has been into space twice courtesy of Mr Anderson’s firm).

By the way, can you figure out how to design your own space ship, manufacture it, fund it privately, and put it into low space twice within 10 days?

I can’t.

But Allen and Rutan figured it out. Way back in 2004.

Can you figure out how to have passenger-paying sub-orbital space shots?

I can’t.

But Space Adventures is doing it.  Now.

Challenges ahead? You bet.  Still, keep your sunglasses handy.

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